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It was 1966 when Il ragazzo della via Gluck (The Boy from Via Gluck; the song recorded in English as Tar and Cement)moved to the city “to breathe in the cement” finding, on his return to the countryside, “nothing but houses upon houses, tar and cement”. He couldn’t help but wonder “why they keep building houses, and don’t leave the grass … if we go on like this, who knows how things will be”.

In those years, many artists also wondered about this same question. We need only mention the cases of Giuseppe Penone and Ugo La Pietra to grasp the temperature of the question and the practices with which the issue of environmental protection was faced, examined and interpreted. After a little under sixty years, many artists continue to ask themselves this question, sensing that the issue is becoming increasingly compelling, since the total lack of attention to the subject has led to a significant decline in biodiversity. Unfortunately, the balance has been compromised for quite some time, due to an indiscriminate use of (exhaustible) natural resources that will gradually and inexorably bring us ever-closer to Overshoot Day.[1] However, nature has always been present in art: as a frame for human action (see especially the Baroque and the Carraccis); as a sublime element, because it is an expression of the divine on Earth (see Romanticism, and William Turner and John Constable in particular); as a stepmother (see Symbolism and Giovanni Segantini above all); or as an expression of the objectivity of the artist and his emotions (see Impressionism and Claude Monet). Here we make only brief references to the near past of art history, just to remind ourselves that, in its broadest sense, Physis (Nature) — from which everything comes that is subject to birth, growth, degeneration and death — was already present in the Lascaux caves. All that changed the approach of the artist, who went so far as to treat it, in some cases, as a mere material, in the same way as clay or marble. A certain sensitivity to the environment developed especially during the 1970s (for example, as well as in the works of the aforementioned Penone and La Pietra, in those of Piero Gilardi, Giuliano Mauri, Anselm Kiefer, Sebastião Salgado, Richard Long and Walter De Maria). Yet it has been in recent decades that many artists have set a notable, attentive and very clear environmental perspective at the centre of their artistic research. It would be difficult to name them all, and complicated to list them, which is why we have chosen to proceed with brief mentions and indications. As we know, art also aims to illustrate the best conditions to protect the Earth, conveying valid and necessary information in an attempt to shake consciences. But the present writer’s intention is to highlight the difference, in form and content, between those artists who pursue an investigation exclusively dedicated to environmental issues and those whose work life powerfully enters into — and in which, consequently, the theme of the environment is similarly present as a thought, as an issue not to be underestimated. We need only think of Il cedro dei cieli (2014), a 3D video animation by Mariagrazia Pontorno, in which a Lebanese cedar is uprooted by the passage of a storm that lays bare its centuries-old roots and speaks to us of the delicate equilibrium that balances nature. Or the video Nobilis Golden Moon (2020) with which the artist denounces — as she herself explains — “the desacralisation of the Mediterranean through the process of extinction of one of its symbols and sentinels, the Pinna Nobilis: a huge mussel over a metre in height, at risk of extinction due to a pandemic disease”.

If The Ice Monolith (2013), presented by Stefano Cagol in Venice, sought to raise public awareness on the issue of global warming through the exhibition of a large block of ice, destined to melt away within a few days, the extraordinary and powerful photographs by Luigi Ghirri and Gabriele Basilico testify, in a more indirect and silent way, to the profound environmental transformations linked to consumerism and capitalism. Meanwhile, the rarefied images by Elger Esser show landscapes that are now lost, and no longer exist.

Through timely paradoxes, then, some artists demonstrate the persistence of this theme in current contemporary-art production. Such is the case of Gea Casolaro’s South (2010), a series of images taken in the wilderness and placed upside down, which indirectly provoke us to reflect on possible future environmental upheavals, and with the installation Il cielo stellato e la legge morale (2019). A telescope pointed at a planisphere, it seeks to make us reflect not only on our own position in the world, but also on the need to preserve the Planet without distinctions of borders or economic interests.

In her Senza titolo (zebre) from 2003, Paola Pivi portrays a pair of zebras that find themselves disoriented in a snowy scenario, while in the 2006 cycle La morte di un immagine Andrea Galvani proposes a series of landscapes in which he carries out physical experiments able to generate voids, black holes, in an attempt to regain possession of the earth. Claudia Losi has been conducting the Balena Project for almost twenty years now, culminating in 2010 with Les Funerailles de la Baleine. The project began in 2004, when the artist came across the remains of a whale skeleton found in the ravines of Montefalcone in the 1930s: material proof of the presence of the sea in this mountainous Appenine region. Although it did not initially have a wholly environmentalist slant, her “journey with the whale” still today remains — given its duration, the communities involved and the sheer scale of the work (a fin whale made of grey wool fabric in its natural dimensions of around twenty-four metres in length) — one of the most valuable and powerful works of this kind, forcefully denouncing the untrammelled exploitation of natural resources and highlighting how it endangers the survival of many animals, including the whale.

Another obsession, in this case with fungi, also testifies to the precariousness of natural balances. Giulio Bensasson, with his constant attention to the proliferation of these organisms, seems to want to silently warn us of the possible risks to which humans would be exposed in the event of unexpected mutations in the body of mycetes, produced by anthropogenic climate change.

Crossing the suburbs and immortalising their degradation (often corroborated by reading texts such as John Burnside’s Glister or Corman McCarthy’s The Road), Botto & Bruno describe a fictitious landscape, the result of the union of elements taken from reality, evidence of the absolute lack of attention to the environment (see for example Ballad of Forgotten Places, 2020). Similarly, Giardino Abusivo (2022) and Licola Pop Up (2013) by Eugenio Tibaldi denounce the difficult relationship between the economy and the landscape, showing how the latter will always lose out unless there is a protective intervention by the community.

Other artists, moreover, place environmental issues at the centre of their artistic production. The important and profound denunciations they offer, also of a political nature, often make their artistic activity overlap with a constant, vigorous militant intervention. Such is the case of artist Rosa Jijon, co-founder, together with Francesco Martone, of A4C-Artsforthecommons, a collective platform dedicated to art and activism. For years, she has been carrying out projects in defence of the environment, including Rivus, a video that translates into music and images the struggle of rivers for recognition of their own legal personality.

Inés Fontenla, with Requiem Terrae (2011) and The Sky at the End of the World (2004), has also been sounding her alarm for decades.

The concept of anima mundi is at the basis of Laboratorio habitat by Marco Scifo (who is currently engaged in the “exercises” for the work in progress Cambiamenti di forma). Through this work, the artist seeks to recount his relationship with nature, perceived as a single living organism. The latest works by Pietro Ruffo are entitled The Planetary Garden; with these the artist looks at climate change and the loss of biodiversity in an unequivocal memento mori, through a stratification of images created on his beloved maps

Andreco (Andrea Conte) has for over two decades used a multidisciplinary approach, in projects including Climate Art Project (launched in 2015), to investigate the relationship between man and the environment, and between the built and the natural environment. He observes the consequences of climate change by imagining a world without humans and adopting a perspective aimed at overcoming the anthropocentric vision, instead moving towards an ecocentric one.

Similarly, with his majestic sculptures positioned in limitless environments, Davide Rivalta gives animals (mainly wild ones such as lions, gorillas, rhinoceroses and bears) back that dignity and freedom they have lost due to captivity. Through an almost shamanic approach and the creation of immersive installations, Alex Cecchetti urges us to identify with nature, to bear in mind the debt that humans owe it, starting with the very air we breathe.

Taking images (the fossils of the future) from newspapers and magazines, Francesco Simeti, while questioning the role of images, also concretises representations of nature that are both real and artificial. He thus raises questions about the perception of nature by our species, as well as the ecosystem’s ability to re-establish an internal balance that is often unfavourable to humans.

[1] Eatrh Overshoot Day | Earth Overshoot Day, in Italy reached on 28 July 2022 and, at this rate, the Global Footprint Network has estimated that in 2050 humans will consume twice the planet’s biocapacity, the natural resources the Earth is capable of regenerating in one year.